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The Urban Revival Of Houston’s East End Is Building On Its Historic Bones

Houston’s East End typically invokes imagery of industrial warehouses, railway tracks, scattered residential neighborhoods and few pedestrians. But the local management district and developers are focusing on projects that could transform the area into a bustling residential and commercial hub within the next decade.

“I think that there's a lot of promise here, and my goal is to try to bring as many people together as possible,” East End District President Veronica Gorczynski told Bisnow.

A rendering of the East River project in Houston's East End.

The East End is a historically diverse area, and has seen multiple waves of Hispanic, Asian and African American immigration over several decades, reflecting periods of economic growth and activity in the industrial sector as well as around Port Houston.

Following a downturn in the 1970s and 1980s, the East End began to re-emerge as an economic power in the 1990s, bolstered by the revitalization of the port and an influx of skilled labor jobs. 

The Greater East End Management District was founded in 1999 as a tool for economic development and revitalization of the area. The organization rebranded as the East End District in June 2018.

The East End is not to be confused with East Downtown, which is located immediately adjacent to Downtown Houston, and is composed of just 776.8 acres, or 1.2 square miles of land area. In comparison, the East End encompasses 16 square miles. Its boundaries extend from Clinton Drive to the north, Loop 610 to the east, Telephone Road at Interstate 45 to the south, and the Houston Belt and Terminal Railroad at U.S. Highway 59 to the west.

Communities within the area include Eastwood, Idylwood, Magnolia Park, Second Ward, Pecan Park, Broadmoor and Lawndale/Wayside.

Population-wise, the East End district is expected to grow. Gorczynski estimates that between 85,000 and 87,000 people live in the district, and said her organization is working on tracking demographics and movement to better understand the trends.

“We're expecting a population increase but we have to go by pockets,” Gorczynski said.

While mid-rise apartments and townhomes are commonly associated with EaDo, they are less common across the East End District, which still largely features bungalow-style homes in certain residential neighborhoods like Eastwood. As projects like Midway Cos.’ East River project break ground, the hope is that more development will be attracted to the area.

East End District President Veronica Gorczynski

The East River project is the most notable development underway in the East End District. Sitting on about 150 acres, the project is the largest single contiguous development track inside the 610 Loop, according to Midway Cos. CEO Jonathan Brinsden.

“The planning of the project is really focused around creating a high-quality, walkable, urban, mixed-use environment. The project has been planned with essentially an urban grid that, when completed, would be the equivalent of about 65 downtown blocks,” Brinsden told Bisnow. “We see it as a great opportunity to weave together the urban fabric of the neighborhoods north of us and the neighborhoods south of us.”

The land parcel, which has a little over a mile of Buffalo Bayou frontage, has a long history of industrial activity. Developer Midway Cos. acquired the land in July 2016, and plans to develop the project over five phases.

Phase 1 will encompass retail, restaurants, entertainment, multifamily and office. Midway Cos. is also working with the Houston Maritime Museum to locate its new museum on the site.

Brinsden said the company is still negotiating a number of public agreements, which are close to completion, and the goal is to break ground on Phase 1 in the summer. Once the public agreements are completed, confirmed tenant announcements will likely follow.

“I think it has the capacity to bring new people to the neighborhood, which is a positive, and hopefully overall has just a positive impact on the surrounding opportunity,” Brinsden said.

Nearby, Chicago-based Marquette Cos. is working on 2404 Navigation Blvd., a nine-story, 300-unit mixed-use community that will feature one-, two- and three-bedroom units averaging 850 SF, as well as 18K SF of retail space for a restaurant and a café.

The site went under contract in February 2019, and will close at the end of construction. Groundbreaking was originally slated for August, and build-out is expected to be completed within 15 months of that time.

“We’re hoping to stay on track on the development side and have these units and redevelopment commercial come online, and make sure that the infrastructure supports it as well, and that we're able to manage the expectations of the community,” Gorczynski said.

Midway's East River site.

Gorczynski took the helm as president of the East End District in May 2017, and is the third person to serve in the role. She said the area is attracting developers that are prioritizing green space around mixed-use developments, as well as easy access to Downtown Houston.

“I really don't have to sell our area very hard,” Gorczynski said.

“Investors come to us with questions, and we do market at ICSC [International Council of Shopping Centers], just about every year, for the retail folks, but when they come in general asking, they don't want the pitch, they're asking real specific about economic development opportunities.”

The neighborhood doesn’t offer traditional tax abatements as an incentive, but part of the East End falls within a qualified opportunity zone. That comes with tax benefits, as long as prospective development projects have the potential to appreciate in value.

In particular, the East End District is seeing an uptick of young, creative entrepreneurs, who are seeking a lively neighborhood where they can ride their bike to work, according to Gorczynski.

Those entrepreneurs are being attracted by initiatives such as the renovated 307K SF East End Maker Hub, which is a collaboration between Urban Partnerships Community Corp. and TXRX Lab, as well as the up-and-coming Innovation District in Midtown.

As the population grows, the area will need to continue to expand its transportation options, and introduce more grocery options to residents.

Gorczynski said she has been asking for a new grocery store for the East End since she took on her role, but with no success.

“I ask about once a year, and it's not just H-E-B, I've spoken to a couple of different grocers, and make sure they're on our radar,” she said.

In Houston, a disproportionate number of neighborhoods in the east and southeast areas of the city are classified as food deserts, where low-income residents are more than a mile from the closest supermarket.

Though the management district does not have a specific location in mind, Gorczynski said she is hopeful that the East River project may introduce a grocery store in the area to accompany the residential and retail footprint.

Midway CEO Jonathan Brinsden

Aside from encouraging development, the East End District’s core work focuses on the maintenance of public thoroughfares. 

One example is the long-proposed Navigation/Jensen/Runnels Roundabout project, which would introduce an urban roundabout, pedestrian elements, streetscape and bus stop improvements. The district released its public art concept plan for the roundabout in February.

From a near-term project perspective, Gorczynski wants to ensure that the East End District makes good decisions regarding the North Houston Highway Improvement Project, which is still in the design phase.

That project involves a planned reconstruction of Interstate 45 from Beltway 8 to Downtown Houston. The redesign would widen the freeway and amend the current route, to help alleviate traffic congestion as Houston’s population grows.

Aside from being involved with the North Houston Highway Improvement Project, the East End District also advocates use of the METRORail Green Line, as well as bike trails.

“The best way to influence transportation in Houston is to participate in the different planning exercises. You have to get your solution on the map,” Gorczynski said.

On a smaller scale, the East End District is looking at expanding Navigation Esplanade by three blocks, and is also looking at executing a bike plan that would complement the efforts of Bike Houston, and better connect with the Bayou Greenways 2020 plan.

East End is undergoing changes, and Brinsden is optimistic that with the introduction of more amenities, retail and outdoor spaces, more people will flock to the neighborhood.

“I think we're in a very exciting juncture in the city, in terms of, I think we're on the front end of really urbanizing and the advent of a renaissance of parks and green spaces has been fantastic and a really important aspect of being able to urbanize successfully,” Brinsden said.